Photo by Toronto FC
There’s no place like Canada for Stuart Neely, who chose to return to the nation he’s called home for most of his life after serving as the Head of Football Development with New Zealand Football in 2014.
Neely, who currently coaches PDL side TFC Academy, first joined Toronto FC in 2008, serving as the Academy’s manager. He became the Academy Director before moving out west to join the Vancouver Whitecaps FC as the Head of Management and Player Advancement. He remained there until 2013, when he packed his bags and moved beyond the borders.
“It was a tremendous experience,” Neely said. “New Zealand is a beautiful country, and the Kiwis are wonderful and pleasant people. There’s a tremendous sporting culture, so I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, but it wasn’t Canada, and I felt I could do some more things for the game in Canada.”
What motivated him to return was the desire to teach and develop young players into professionals in Canada.
“The competition of the teams that you’re up against [in the PDL], the age bracket of the players – even though we have young ones – it’s that 18-23-year-old age bracket that forms the basis of the future professional,” Neely said.
“I had a conversation with [K-W United FC President] Barry MacLean and [Director of Operations] Gill Heidary, and they spoke of K-W, what their plans were … and I was thoroughly on board with it. I came back to do what I could to help kickstart that program and K-W with residential programming in place, summer camps and seeking to build a championship program, which indeed happened over a two-year period. They’re at it again [this season], which is fantastic. My relationship with K-W hasn’t faltered in any fashion. They still hold a strong place in my heart, as does Toronto FC.”
Neely’s impact with K-W United FC was felt by the whole league in 2015, as the club finished the regular season with an 11-1-2 record and won the PDL Championship against the New York Red Bulls U23. Neely joined the TFC Academy ahead of the 2015 season and helped the club finish in fourth place in the Great Lakes Division.
Unlike most teams across the league, Neely plays many of the club’s budding teenagers in order to further their development. Most teams TFC Academy come up against have proven, older collegiate players or former professionals using the league to potentially earn a new contract somewhere. This presents plenty of challenges for Neely’s side, but each moment in each game presents a chance at learning for the young Toronto FC players.
“We have a very young group of players in the PDL, mainly 16-, 17-year-old boys, and in order for us to improve the pathway to pro, we first of all have to be a part of it. Being a part of the PDL allows our players be tested in all aspects of the game – physically, tactically, technically, psychologically, socially,” Neely said. “Those players are challenged every time we take to the field against PDL opposition, and it is a massive learning curve for our players to play in that environment. Every game they play, they are taught lessons in every aspect of the game – how to conduct themselves, how to deal with faster, stronger and tactically better opposition.”
To Neely, facing tougher opposition helps improve the speed of thought for the TFC Academy players. Results are important to Neely, but learning from mistakes, controlling possession and creating quality chances and buildups going forward is the aim each time his side takes the field.
“Our training programs for those players are based around a lot of match play and small-sided games that develop players to deal with technical execution of the game at speed, and are isolated in areas where they are constantly under pressure,” Neely said.
“We’ve obviously been concerned with the multiple mistakes and the breakdown during the key moments in the games where we’ve started to fatigue because of the physical differences, whether it be strength, the power, the speed of the opposition. But, that’s important that we at least have the ability to match the level of football and have the ability to problem-solve on the pitch.”